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Celeste | Message of HOPE #BC2020

I was 36 years old and had just given birth to my son when I found the lump. I thought it was a left over blocked milk duct from nursing. I spoke to my GYN who told me to get a mammogram. I did and found that the lump was solid and needed to be removed. A few days after the biopsy, I found out it was CANCER.

That night I did not sleep. I was worn out considering my options…mastectomy, lumpectomy, double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, port or no port…all of these invasive decisions had to be made and made quickly by me, a novice in the cancer world. No one wants to make the decision for you lest they be wrong. It is your battle and you must decide how to fight it.

I decided I wanted to keep the breast, so I went with lumpectomy, chemo and radiation. I had a surgery for the lumpectomy and another one for the port insertion. Then the 6 rounds of chemo, followed by 36 radiation treatments.

I went into this as a healthy young woman. I came out as a healthy woman. A little beaten and scarred, but I made it through in 6 months.

I ran the inaugural Susan Komen Race for the Cure in St Petersburg to celebrate defeating the breast cancer monster…VICTORY…it was over.

I went for my 18 month follow up with oncologist, Dr. George. During the breast exam he found a lump right where the lumpectomy was performed. He said he didn’t like the way this was looking. I told him the surgeon said it was scar tissue. He says “scar tissue doesn’t grow.” Dr. George called the surgeon right away and requested I have it removed. It was Dec. 19th, a few days before Christmas 1999….going into Y2K.

I had the biopsy on Dec. 22, 1999. Results came to me on Christmas Eve. My husband and I gathered around the phone in the kitchen to hear the surgeon say, “I’m sorry Celeste, the cancer has returned. You will need to have a mastectomy on January 2, 2000.”

This time I was not rosy, or willing or nice. I was mad as HELL! I did EVERYTHING right. I followed EVERY piece of medical advice. I changed my diet, I stopped drinking coffee, I started working out, I did 36 radiation treatments and 6 rounds of chemotherapy and it came back.

I had the mastectomy and a lady from the cancer association came to my hospital room to give me a teddy bear. I told her to take it away. I was mad! Mad at her, mad at GOD, mad at my healthcare team, mad at everyone. Because I had radiation I was not able to have a breast implant. I would have to have a flap surgery and that meant weeks of recovery. I was mad and decided to go through life as a woman with one breast.

I ran the Gasparilla in January 2000 mad. I went to the grocery store mad. Anger was my first response to most things. Dr. George wanted me to have chemo again, I was angry,  I refused.

I was mad for 6 months. Then I had a breakthrough. A lady at my church invited me to a support group. They were doing a study on “Recovering from the losses of life.” My family suggested I attend.

Listening to the stories of rape, suicide, molestation made me feel the loss of my breast was no big deal. I started to heal and decided that Dr. George was right, I need to do all I could to ensure all of the cancer cells were dead.

I signed up for a strong chemotherapy regimen, that made my bones ache, extracted my energy and left me sick for days after each treatment. I had enough energy each day to just do one thing. Once I tried to go Target and Publix on the same day. My strength evaporated and I had to sit down at the front of the store. In my nice wig no one knew what was going on with me. My neighbor came into the store and saw me sitting at the front of the store with the cart filled with groceries unable to speak from utter fatigue. She scooped me right up and took me home and went back to the store and picked up my groceries. My faith and the love of my community and husband got me through it.

I started chemo in May 2000 and finished October 2000. This time I was not the same woman. I was broken, beat down, emotionally and physically exhausted. It took months to come back to some sense of normalcy. When my hair came back it was gray, nails were brittle, lashes were bald. I felt I had been to the end of life and was now given a second chance.

The second chance….everyone I started chemo and radiation with had died. All of them had died! When I would go for checkups and ask about someone, I was told, “Didn’t you hear, she passed away.” I was spared and felt extremely humbled by that.

I used to have a recurring dream…I was running and there was a ledge, I ran all of the way to the edge and fell off and a hand caught me, lifted me back up and said, “Go back.”

So, what do you do with the second chance?

You encourage others. I never let the day go by without saying or texting an encouraging word to someone else. You pursue your passions. For me it was art. I also learned to cycle and joined a bike group. I started a ladies group called the Divine Keys and a book club called the Book Divas and a creative group, called the Creative Cluster.

I recently bought a new puppy named Curry, celebrated 30 years of marriage to my husband John and this October marks the 20th anniversary of the end of breast cancer for me.

I took the plunge in 2007 and had breast reconstruction.

I have made the last 20 years count. I have poured into the lives of many people. I am grateful for the second chance.

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